The night is warm, humid and pregnant with magic.
etting is the Great Blue Heron music festival several years ago, in Sherman, New York.
An hour after having lost sight of my dear friends, I wandered with comically-dilated pupils to a set that was evidently about to start. Having made her acquaintence earlier that weekend, I converse with Bubbly Girl with Braids who informs me that “these guys are going to blow your mind”. I do not know the ‘guys’ in question, but I remain stationary and relax as BGwB proceeds to describe how The Man has been keeping her down for some time now.This is fine. I am now excited for this show; her naïve egalitarian ramblings are white noise to me.
I affix my gaze upon the stage. Some country bumpkin of a roadie mounts the stage, resplendant with beard and vest, banjo in tow. A second, similarly-dressed bumpkin bearing an even more impressive beard joins him and begins tuning a guitar. A third fellow, clean-cut and rather out of place, lugs and strategically places a gargantuan acoustic bass. Even more incongruously, a gaunt Korean gent arrives with a cello. I assure BGwB that judging by the roadies, this band is bound to be interesting. She informs me that I am quite mistaken, the ‘roadies’ are indeed the band in question. And that, dear readers, is the first time I became acquainted with the Avett Brothers.
The show that followed, quite simply, changed my life. The scrappy fellow in the vest slowly yet deliberately plucked his banjo, and warbled to us:
Ok, so I was wrong about my reasons for us falling out
Of love, I want to fall back in.
My life is different now, I swear;
I know now what it means to care
About somebody other than myself.
The lyrics weren’t mind-blowingly cryptic; what struck me in in those several few seconds was a Mjolnir-weight hammer of sincerity. This guy hurt somebody – badly. He realized he fucked up. And dammit, he wanted to make things right. Now sure, it’s not as if ten-thousand songs haven’t been written about this same subject since the beginning of the history of music. But hearing this fellow, looking as if he’d
crawled out of Cripple Creek, nursing a bottle of Knob Creek, all because he hurt some babe who shopped at Coldwater Creek, made me actually believe him. So unlike so many other acts of that weekend, I didn’t just hear the Avett Brothers, I listened to them. Thank God I did.
I spent a good part of that set dancing with some gal named Rebecca with stubby dreadlocks and a safety-pinned skirt, who slurped wine from a plastic wine glass (where the hell do you get a plastic wine glass, anyways?) and taking in the entirety of these Avett Brothers. I’d be lying to you if I told you I remember all of the songs in their set; but what I can recall is that each and every one touched me in some way or another (unlike Miss Rebecca, whose skirt disintegrated due to the notorious unreliability of safety pins and the equally notorious effects of tawdry wine from a box, necessitating her departure). See, these fellas moved me. And as far as I’m concerned, if I’ve never heard of you and I’m listening to you for the first time live, and you make me feel something? You’re alright in my book.
The Avett Brothers are oft labeled a bluegrass band and this is true, to a point. Their earlier albums were certainly the most traditionally bluegrass, albeit with heavy doses of folk and general alt-country goodness. The earliest albums were also charmingly underproduced, complete with a slightly out of tune honkey-tonk piano and rough, unpolished harmonies, all the while sounding as if they were recorded rather successfully in somebody’s basement. By 2004’s ‘Mignionette‘, their sound had become a bit more polished and the songwriting produced tracks that were somewhat poppy and catchy, yet in a good way. If you envision the Beatles having grown up in Kentucky, you’re probably on the right track. 2006’s ‘Four Thieves Gone’ offered a far more experimental collection of songs with most of them hit or miss, as far as I’m concerned. 2006’s ‘Emotionalism’ delivered a more developed folk-rock sound while significantly muting the bluegrass influence. While the band continued to shift and evolve, in 2006 and then later 2008, Scott and Seth released two ‘Gleam’ EP’s, featuring heavily stripped-down acoustic folk. In 2009, everything for the band changed when Rick Rubin suddenly materialized:
Little Known Rick Rubin Fact #17: That beard is composed entirely of malice.
He swiftly gathered all of the Avett’s newest recordings, methodically edited out all of their redeeming qualities, and then finally stacked the physical recordings before him atop a bejeweled brass platter. He set to work devouring the tapes without even chewing, unhinging his jaw like that of some corpulent anaconda. Several hours later, grunting like a choleric Wookie, he defecated casually and loudly into a battered aluminum bucket. What lay spattered within and around that bucket was 2009’s ‘I and Love and You’. However, I’m not going to bemoan that atrocity of a record much here.
Feel free to read more on their unfortunate musical abortion here.
That being said, their back catalog is absolutely fantastic. Probably 80% of the songs are love songs, with an ongoing theme of “Pretty Girl from (some city)”. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that each and every one of the gals in those songs were indeed a real person, as these dudes just project an aura of shockingly frank sentimentality and vivid honesty. Yet, despite the proliferation of love songs, none of them feel stale or rehashed. Each song is its own distinct entity, whether it be a ballad, lullaby, spoken-word prose, melancholy elegy or simply a shit-kicking folk romp. Themes include heartbreak and loss(obviously), aging and maturity, fidelity (and infidelity), and simply the beauty of love for family, friends or significant other. The music of the Avett Brothers oscillates dramatically between the saccharine and maudlin to the despondent and the lachrymose, and I can’t imagine a more accurate echo of life, eh?
As unique as the ‘Brothers are, they are not without their faults. As much as I enjoy the early recordings, the underproduction may repel some. Also early on, the vocals were a bit rough at times, particularly Seth. (While on the topic of vocals, bassist Bob Crawford’s singing on “Four Thieves Gone” is gut-wrenchingly terrible, almost to the point of undermining how delightful the lyrics may be.) In addition, they’ve a bad habit of assembling exceptionally unbalanced albums. Every record contains a majority of phenomenal tracks, though interspersed with either dull, tedious throwaways or just random audio and dialogue that appears to consist of inane inside jokes. Even so, the aforementioned asinine babble offers a unique behind-the-scenes window spotlighting how close these fellas actually are in real life. Band members who hated each other wouldn’t include audio from the “Turkey Shit Incident” unless they found it truly meaningful.
Even if one does not become as fanatically endeared to the band as I have become, there is something on the table for everyone. I personally know folks from all walks of life (stoners, party girls, hipsters, gamers, even frat boy bros *shudder*) that find one or several Avett Brother songs which move them deeply, fundamentally and personally. Their lyrics really tug at the edges of one’s heart in a manner that is intimate and pleasurably unsettling when contrasted against today’s vapid, putrescent Top 40 wasteland.
A sampling of the Avett Brothers discography follows. They’ll nourish your soul, if you have one.